During the summer of 1999, Dwight Yorke seemed poised on the very edge of real greatness. Always a special talent, Yorke had shown glimpses, and lingering gazes of his promise at Aston Villa, but after joining Manchester United, looked like he’d found his soul mate, in both club, and strike partner. Although not the prime performer in United’s treble winning campaign, he was certainly the catalyst. The new boy brought in amongst the already acquainted to connect the dots and make a pretty painting a masterpiece. He was the eyes of the Mona Lisa, the apple on The Son of Man, the finger tips on the Sistine Chapel. And yet now, when we look back, that season is mostly all we remember of Yorke. That, and like the Cheshire cat – his lasting, almost independent smile.
Dwight Eversley Yorke was born on the 3rd of November 1971 in Canaan, Tobego. During an Aston Villa Pre-Season tour of the West Indies, Graham Taylor spotted a young man dancing around the field with an unwavering smile on his face, an exuberant love of the game and a natural flair for it . Having never encountered anyone who’d ever smiled in his presence before, Taylor was transfixed and offered him a trail, finally giving him a permanent deal in 1989.
Unsure of his best position but determined to keep at least one person smiling in the Villa team, Taylor initially put Yorke on the right wing. Despite it not being his preferred position it enabled Taylor to get a better view of his smile in the dug out for at least half the game. Buoyed and reinvigorated by the discovery of smiling Taylor moved on to the England job where he discovered just how special Yorke was, as no one smiled at him ever again.
In 1991 Taylor was replaced as Villa manager by Big Ron Atkinson. Atkinson also became incredibly fond of Yorke, often coining affectionate nicknames for him such as Ugo Ehiogu or Dalian Atkinson. Under Big Ron Villa won the League Cup in 1994, denying Manchester United a domestic Treble, something Yorke would make up for with gusto later in his career. In the 1995/96 season, now manager Brian Little moved Yorke to Center Forward and was quickly repaid. Dwight excelled as a forward, scoring close to 20 goals in his next 3 seasons, and it was during this spell, that he came to the lustful attentions of Alex Ferguson. Despite a failed attempt to sign him the previous season, and after a long and protracted transfer wrangle in which then manager John Gregory had declared his desire to shoot Yorke if only he’d been able to attain the required implement, Dwight finally made the switch to Manchester United in 1998 for a fee of £12.6m.
He was an instant success at Old Trafford. Despite a quiet debut away at West Ham, a match notable for the ‘Ammers fans polite and restrained show of gratitude to returning England World Cup hero David Beckham (where we can only assume they had attempted to find Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh but being in East London were sadly only able to find Bricks) he made a storming home debut, scoring twice in a 4-1 defeat of Charlton Athletic.
As the season progressed, Yorke formed a nearly telepathic partnership with Andrew – “don’t call him Andy, you wouldn’t like him when he’s Andy” – Cole. Despite initial concerns that Yorke would displace the previous seasons leading scorer, their partnership blossomed into one of the deadliest in Europe, never better expressed than in the 3-3 Champions League Group Stage match with Barcelona at Camp Nou. In one of the games greatest Arena’s, Yorke scored twice and set up Cole in a glorious fluid demonstration of ‘Sexy Football’. It was during this time that Big Ron, now employed to make up words during ITV’s Champions League Coverage, coined his latest and most frequent affectionate nickname for his former prodigy – “Andy Cole.”
The unprecedented Treble of League, FA & European Cup could surely not have been achieved without Yorke’s Impressive 30 goal haul and overall impact and on the team. His highlights included a Hat Trick away at Leicester in the League, the equalizer at home to Liverpool in the memorable late 2-1 FA Cup victory. His double against Chelsea in the Quarter Final. (including a glorious 20 yard chip) Both goals against Inter Milan in the CL Quarter Final 1st Leg and the crucial Semi Final away goal equalizer against Juve in Turin. He also racked up 24 assists, the same that year as World Player of The Year Runner up, David Beckham. Yorke finished the season as the joint top scorer in the Premier League but due to a bizarre sponsorship mix up, the PFA and FWA Player of Year Awards went to Tottenham’s French lothario David Ginola, while United’s inspirational trio of Yorke, Beckham and Keane had to do with a plethora of L’Oreal ‘Because You’re Worth It’ Awards for services to hair care. (this may not be true)
Another 23 goals the following season and the rank of 10th in the World Player of the year Awards for his 98/99 efforts looked like it was going to be the springboard to a long and Cantona-esque career of iconic inspiration, but in 2000/01 Yorke began to fall foul of Ferguson due to one too many ill advised holidays in Jordan. Despite this, Yorke put in possibly his most memorable performance in a United shirt, scoring a hat-trick in just 22 minutes during the 6-1 demolition of Arsenal at Old Trafford. Yet it was a frustrating season, in which he mostly played second fiddle to a rejuvinated Teddy Sheringham and his cryogenically preserved haircut.
By 2001/02, Ferguson had lost patience with Yorke and after the arrival of Rudd Van Nistelrooy in the summer – and just one goal in 12 appearances -he was sold to Blackburn for £2m at the end of the season. Despite a good start with Rovers – finding the onion bag 13 times in his opening season – Yorke fell foul of another fiery Scotsman and future leg sprawlingly laconic pundit, Graeme Souness, and was sold on to Birmingham mid way though the 04-05 season after a rather poor return of just 19 goals in 74 appearances.
His 9 year spell at Villa meant he wasn’t well liked at St Andrews and he spent most of the season on the bench before jetting off to Australia for a nice pay packet and some fun in the sun at Sydney FC. Despite the chance to smile at a lot of pretty and welcoming women, it marked the end of his serious career, and even though he returned to England a year later to help Sunderland reach the Premier League, it was hardly a fitting end to the career of a player whom – at one time – struck fear into the hearts of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
He now occasionally turns up on television to comment on United matches and upset Peter Andre, but with a better attitude, he could’ve easily acquired a legendary status at Old Trafford. But his lothario playboy ways always seemed to get the better of him. It’s a crying shame for Yorke, and those who once worshiped him, but at least he will always be remembered for his iconic contribution to an iconic season in English and European football…and for that smile.